Francisco Javier Varela García (September 7, 1946 – May 28, 2001), was a Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist who, together with his teacher Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology.
Francisco Varela was born in 1946 in Santiago in Chile. After completing secondary school at the Liceo Aleman de Santiago (1951–1963),like his mentor Humberto Maturana, Varela studied first medicine then biology at the University of Chile, then did a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. His thesis, defended in 1970 and supervised by Torsten Wiesel, was titled Insect Retinas: Information processing in the compound eye.
After the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, Varela and his family spent 7 years in exile in the USA before returning to Chile to become a Professor of biology.
Varela became a Tibetan Buddhist in the 1970s, initially studying, together with Keun-Tshen Goba, with the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Vajradhatu and Shambhala Training, and later with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a Nepalese meditation master of higher tantras.
In 1986, he settled in France, where he at first taught cognitive science and epistemology at the École Polytechnique, and neuroscience at the University of Paris. From 1988 until his death, he led a research group at the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique).
He died in 2001 in Paris of Hepatitis C after having written an account of his 1998 liver transplant. Varela had four children, including the actress, environmental spokesperson, and model Leonor Varela.
Varela was primarily trained as a biologist, and was fundamentally influenced by his teacher and fellow Chilean, Humberto Maturana, also a biologist with a strong philosophical orientation.
Varela wrote and edited a number of books and numerous journal articles in biology, neurology, cognitive science, mathematics, and philosophy. He was a founding member of the Integral Institute, a thinktank dedicated to the cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines.
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